In less time than it takes to fill in a pothole on a major intercity road in Albania, the historic main stadium of Tirana was demolished. It has been replaced, at time of writing, by a large empty space, reminding us that it is easier to destroy than create.
It took all of five days to turn the crumbling – but still functional – national stadium of 72 years into a mass of rubble. The stadium was originally begun in 1939, halted in 1943 because of the war, and finally completed by the Communist authorities in 1946. They named it Qemal Stafa after a young communist partisan killed by the occupying forces during WW2. It was originally designed by the Italian architect Gherardo Bosio as part of a rationalist and modernized expression of Italian architecture, along with the Dajti hotel and the Prime Minister’s office. Together with the fascist neo-renaissance style of buildings around Skanderbeg Square and the road sweeping down to the Polytechnic, it provides the most pleasingly aesthetic part of Tirana. It is now to be replaced by a brand new stadium.
Proponents of the new stadium, including the previous prime minister and the current one, may point out that at 19,700 seats, the old stadium was too small and the new one will be larger with 22,500 seats. Moreover, it can be argued that modern football stadiums are a hallmark of an advanced economy and a source of pride to a country. This one might fill that role: the new complex will contain a shopping centre. It can also be claimed that the original structure, with its location in the centre of town, had to be demolished because it was old, crumbling and no longer relevant to the needs of the 21st Century. Just like the Coliseum in Rome, in fact.
Currently the cost is estimated to be €60 million, though the price of such public projects tend to escalate given unforeseen events, including those parts of funding that may be sliced off for personal gain. Some argue that Tirana needs better hospitals and university facilities more than sports facilities. Others point out that Albania already has one stadium seating 12,800 people in Elbasan – within an hour’s drive of Tirana – or much less time when an Albanian authorities get round to finishing the road link. There is a bigger stadium (seating capacity of just over 16,000) which was recently rebuilt in Shkoder at a cost of €17 million. With a proper public transport system people could be transported between cities in the same time as it takes to get from Gatwick airport to Wembley stadium in London. Perhaps three sports stadiums within travelling distance is a luxury for a country with a population of 3 million and one of the lowest performing economies in Europe.
Others suggest that it would be better to build a larger stadium on building land near to, but not in the city, as in the case of the Allianz stadium in Munich, thus avoiding the inevitable disruption to traffic during its construction. Moreover, a stadium on a green-field site near Tirana would not have the effect of blocking the sun out from the apartments surrounding it. However, those that say this miss the point. Not being in the centre of the city, it would lose its ‘wow’ factor, so urgently sought by an Albanian leadership.
In any case, none of this matters. Once the decision was made, it was inevitable that the old stadium would be demolished, given a tendency of Albanian authorities to avoid public consultation. The idea of a new stadium was conceived at the very top. The project had been designed and contractors chosen, not by public tender but by a simple process of nomination. In developed countries, the design would be put to public consultation with the general public through a hearing. In this case, it was presented, not in the public arena, but on the private premises of the Tirana Hotel, thus allowing the authorities to select the audience and bar those who might object. A handful of protesters – including the ex-political prisoner Fatos Lubonja – were prevented by security guards from entering, as the earlier billed ‘hearing’, was transformed into a ‘fait accompli’.
Of course, the way that public projects are directed from the top by a small group who may perhaps financially benefit, is not unusual in an undeveloped country. Thus, the demolition of the old and the possible construction of the new stadium symbolises the current state of governance in a democratic Albania.
But perhaps the public deserve no better. While the government was busy demolishing this public monument, crowds were gathering less than 100 meters away, oblivious to the destruction being wreaked in their name. They were not protesting against the removal of a national monument. They were focussing their attention on the Euro 2016 game projected onto big screens while drinking beer and cola in Nene Teresa Square. It would be far too cynical to suggest that when destroying the stadium, the government calculated and depended on the apathy and tendency for instant gratification on the part of the voters and timed the demolition of the stadium to coincide with the football game. In any case, this may be a metaphor for the people’s relationship with their government. One can only wonder for how long the general populace will continue to allow themselves to be politically castrated in this way. In the meantime, they will continue to vote for parties that treat them with contempt, though it it difficult to see any alternative.
Thus, the destruction of a part of national heritage has wider implications for Albania. In years to come, people may realise that it is in their long term interests to challenge what they are being told and what is being done in the name of ‘progress’, to be aware of the rich getting richer at their expense and to make their voices heard. By that time, the old architecture of Tirana, including much that predates the stadium, will have been completely destroyed to be replaced by buildings which are monuments to selfishness and greed. At its head will be the symbolic ‘Stadium of Shame.’